Lean Engineering and Taking Down the Walls

Earlier this week I visited a customer who is just starting out with their Lean transformation. They are an engineering firm. They have toured another one of our clients who has succeeded in implementing Lean in their transactional areas. They have good support from senior management and they have already identified some opportunities for kaizen to cut out waste.
But there is one problem. They have a very nice office, and the managers all enjoy killer views of Lake Washington. Why is this a problem? Taking down the walls would give a near 360 degree view of the lake to everyone, as well as improving performance. The problem is the COO’s statement that their President has already said “We’re not taking down any walls.”
Is it essential to take down walls to have a Lean office? We think so. Just today this e-mail to one of our consultants from another one of customers was forwarded to me:
Hi Brad,
We are starting to take down some walls in Engineering! We are creating
an open work area (similar to service) for a new product development
team. It has caused quite a bit of discussion, (positive and negative)
the idea is to ultimately take down all of the walls and open the entire
engineering office.
We are also developing specialty teams (like Toyota Platform Centers) to
encourage coordination within projects and standardization across a
platform. As always our challenge is to change attitudes and thinking.
Best regards,
Paul

The common objections to taking down walls are noise and the fact that it will be easier for others to listen in on discussions around them. The noise issue can be resolved through talking more quietly, headphones when needing to concentrate, ‘war rooms’ for lively discussion, etc. Sensitive business discussions are typically held behind closed doors. At your desk during work hours is probably not the most appropriate time or place to be talking about personal medical, legal or counseling issues in any case.
Then there’s the “Just because I said so” objection from the boss. This is an emotional reaction to a big change, and it’s understandable. The easiest way to address this is to quantify the cost of maintaining the status quo (walls up). We have found that no walls improves productivity easily by 20% or 30%, reduces errors, and speeds cross training. Let the decision maker choose between the improvement impact and holding onto their “just because” reason.
At Gemba our office is an open office with no walls. Information flows quickly and we catch errors and find improvements opportunities sooner, because information is not “batched” behind walls or in e-mail inboxes. If a consulting company like us that does not have a large number of people in the office can see these types of benefits, imagine these benefits in an engineering or customer service office 100 or 1000 times for a larger.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    May 2, 2006 - 6:49 am

    Open work areas are way more stressful for employees. You can not “ever” relax. Someone is always looking at you. This puts an employee in a “CONSTANT” stress state.

  2. Jon Miller

    May 2, 2006 - 7:33 am

    Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.
    Have you ever worked in a factory? How about in retail? How about at a nurse’s station in a hospital ward? These are all highly functional open work environments.
    I accept that you are stressed out by feeling watched. However, if everyone is watching everyone else instead of getting work done, doesn’t this says something about the work ethic and morale of the people in that work place rather than the open workplace layout itself?
    Like all tools for kaizen, open office can be used for the wrong thing, in this case monitoring people. It’s more an issue of the people using the tool and not the tool itself.